Sunday, May 03, 2009

Robert D. Kaplan: "Revenge of Geography"

Illustration by Aaron Goodman
(Image from Foreign Policy)

Robert Kaplan has an excellent (though disputed) article in the latest issue of Foreign Policy (May/June 2009): "The Revenge of Geography." Although his article is global in scope, emphasizing the role played by geography in conflicts along what he calls "shatter zones" (reminiscent of Huntington's "fault lines" between civilizations, except geographic rather than religious), it has some especially significant observations about the specific case of Pakistan:
Of course, the worst nightmare on the subcontinent is Pakistan, whose dysfunction is directly the result of its utter lack of geographic logic. The Indus should be a border of sorts, but Pakistan sits astride both its banks, just as the fertile and teeming Punjab plain is bisected by the India-Pakistan border. Only the Thar Desert and the swamps to its south act as natural frontiers between Pakistan and India. And though these are formidable barriers, they are insufficient to frame a state composed of disparate, geographically based, ethnic groups -- Punjabis, Sindhis, Baluchis, and Pashtuns -- for whom Islam has provided insufficient glue to hold them together. All the other groups in Pakistan hate the Punjabis and the army they control, just as the groups in the former Yugoslavia hated the Serbs and the army they controlled. Pakistan's raison d'ĂȘtre is that it supposedly provides a homeland for subcontinental Muslims, but 154 million of them, almost the same number as the entire population of Pakistan, live over the border in India.

To the west, the crags and canyons of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, bordering Afghanistan, are utterly porous. Of all the times I crossed the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, I never did so legally. In reality, the two countries are inseparable. On both sides live the Pashtuns. The wide belt of territory between the Hindu Kush mountains and the Indus River is really Pashtunistan, an entity that threatens to emerge were Pakistan to fall apart. That would, in turn, lead to the dissolution of Afghanistan.

The Taliban constitute merely the latest incarnation of Pashtun nationalism. Indeed, much of the fighting in Afghanistan today occurs in Pashtunistan: southern and eastern Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan. The north of Afghanistan, beyond the Hindu Kush, has seen less fighting and is in the midst of reconstruction and the forging of closer links to the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, inhabited by the same ethnic groups that populate northern Afghanistan. Here is the ultimate world of Mackinder, of mountains and men, where the facts of geography are asserted daily, to the chagrin of U.S.-led forces -- and of India, whose own destiny and borders are hostage to what plays out in the vicinity of the 20,000-foot wall of the Hindu Kush.
Geography, ethnicity, and religion -- a witches' brew that makes up the dysfunctional state that we know as Pakistan. We're rather far from Francis Fukuyama's End of History and the Last Man, which saw human history as a struggle between ideologies that had reached its Hegelian goal of liberal democracy. But we're also not precisely in those civilizations where Samuel P. Huntington placed us, either, for the Islamic civilization that ought to glue Pakistan together is a rather weak binding agent, given the corrosive acid of ethnicity. The good news in what Kaplan shows is that the Taliban, being an expression of Pashtun nationalism, will encounter resistance from the Punjabis who rule Pakistan and wouldn't want their nuclear weapons to fall into the hands of a different ethnic group. We can therefore expect the Pakistan army to show more resistance than it previously did, for the stakes have been raised by the Taliban's push beyond the Swat Valley.

Or can we? Another scholar, Thomas Barfield, raises some doubts, noting the rise of Islamic radicalism within Pakistan's heavily Pashtun Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and its previously secular army:
A lot of people in the ISI are Pashtuns because they had the language skills. During the Soviet War period, [Mohammad] Zia ul-Haq began Islamizing the army. Before, the army was fairly resolutely secular, but since the '80s you saw a greater and greater influence of Islamists in the army as well as the ISI. By the time they were helping the Taliban, some [army officials] were highly sympathetic to this idea of a Wahhabi-style Islamic state. Pakistan was formed as a state for Muslims separated off from India -- its name means "land of the religiously pure" -- and it's always been like, "Well, are we Muslim enough?" (Michael Mechanic, "Could Pakistan Dissolve Altogether? (Interview with Thomas Barfield)" Mother Jones, May/June 2009)
Barfield worries not just about a Pashtun attempt to take over Pakistan but also about even a failed Pastun attempt to grab the entire country if Pakistan's army holds steady and manages to keep the Punjab region for itself in the ensuing chaos:
The army has always stood to prevent that [sort of takeover], so presumably if they would hold on to the army, the army would hold on to Punjab and prevent things from getting out of hand. But then the question would be, if it starts to fall apart like that, would India feel the need to make a preemptive strike to go after the nukes? (Mechanic, "Could Pakistan Dissolve")
This is where things get really scary . . . and even scarier is the recognition that the world is full of 'Pakistans'! Perhaps not nuclear-armed ones, but increasingly militarized "shatter zones" destabilized by the tyranny of geography.

I have seen the future, and it is murder.

UPDATE: Commentor John B. (below) links to a strong and informed rebuttal of Kaplan at the Registan blog.

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At 8:47 AM, Blogger John B said...

Registan blog recently posted a short, very critical rebuttal of the article.

At 8:57 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

John B, thanks for that. It's certainly a useful corrective from someone who knows what he's talking about.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are factual and intellectual deficiencies in this article, which i think as a person from that area, i must point out. First of all, coming over to factual inacuracies. Thar and Cholistan desert are also divided in the similar fashion as has been Punjab. The line drawn by the British runs through same communities all over the world. Secondly, although there are equal number of muslims in India as are in Pakistan, that should mean another partition of India because the creation of Pakistan was based on Muslim persecution at the hands of the Hindus. If one country had been created for Muslims, and it has not addressed the needs of these people then the injustice should be corrected and bigger portion of India should be given to Pakistan.
Intellectually, the writer altogether forgets that there are equal or even bigger number of incoherencies in India or for that matter in all the ex-colonies of the British in particular and white man in general. The white man brought upheavel, death and destruction in 16th and 17th century, whose aftershocks are still being felt and now the new colonists find some more menacing solutions to their intellectual gimmickry.
He also fails to talk of giving the remainder of Pushtoonistan to Pakistan considering highly volatile and instable conditions in Afghanistan for last so many decades. Infact, with all its inefficiencies, Pakistan is still much stable than Afghanistan; at least it is not an occupied country, at least for now.
The author also fails to find similar flaws with Israel, which was carved out of a living nation, based on some concocted historical assumptions. Probably he has much higher stakes with regards to Israel, and no one in the world likes to offend jews.
What are the facts supporting this assumption that ISI is heavily Pushtun? For your information, most of the fighters whom ISI was dealing with, were international fighters. And if this analogy is taken as correct for some time, then CIA should have been full of Pushtuns as well as Russians because it had to know the language. And now, CIA should be full of Al Qaeda and Taleban because it needs to work with them. I dont see any data supporting this novel idea.
Lastly, the question, could pakistan dissolve? Yes, it could, but then so could India, Afghanistan. They have all kind of problems within their social, geographical and religious spheres. Just imagine as many muslim trouble makers living in India as are in pakistan. It is real recipe for disastour.
And at the end, please dont forget that its a nuclear country. I dont really think so that those lesser humans of Pakistan have made that bomb to display in international showcase. They will certainly use it in case their existence is at stake, may be out of frustration towards all directions....

At 3:59 PM, Anonymous Phillip S Phogg said...

Are any of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan artificially created states? Or are all of them so?

If so, who created them? The British, perhaps? In which case future historians will say colonial Britain was the ultimate cause of all the problems in this region.

At 4:34 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, which article are you referring to -- Kaplan's or Mechanic's? I've quoted from both.

Kaplan certainly doesn't limit his discussion to Pakistan but discusses instabilities due to political lines drawn arbitrarily throughout the world.

Mechanic interviews Barfield and is discussing only the issue of Pakistan's stability, which everyone ought to be concerned about.

If you're suggesting that India should be divided again so that Muslims more Muslims can live separately from Hindus, then you're asking for enormous bloodshed.

You also speak as though you'd like to see Afghanistan cut up and the Pashtun portion given to Pakistan. But would the Pashtuns want to be ruled by Punjabis? And cutting up Afghanistan would surely bring more instability.

As for Israel, Kaplan does discuss it as well, in the context of the larger issue of global sites of instability. He's certainly not afraid of offending the 'Jews' (as you put it). The state of Israel often comes under criticism in the articles that I read, so I don't understand why you seem to think that it doesn't.

Concerning the lines drawn by the British, I don't dissent from your point that many of them were badly drawn, but the fault isn't only the consequence of what the "white man [did] . . . in 16th and 17th century." Imperialism has been around a long time and produced ethnic mixtures everywhere. The Muslim empires account for their share of this in the places that they conquered.

The ISI is something that I know very little about, but your logic of comparison is faulty. Whether it has a lot of Pashtuns or not, this would not affect the ethnic composition of intelligence services elsewhere in the world. That said, based on the criticisms of Kaplan's views over at Registan's blog (follow the link), the view that the Taliban is an extension of Pashtun nationalism would appear to be based on flimsy evidence.

Finally, I think that we are all very aware that Pakistan has nuclear weapons. Indeed, many of us are riveted by that fact and therefore extremely concerned that Pakistan not collapse or be taken over by the Taliban.

Thanks for visiting.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:38 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Phillip S Phogg, many do blame Britain for the political lines drawn as its colonial power receded.

But I doubt that Britain drew these lines without pressure from other forces, so I wouldn't blame them alone.

However, I'm no expert on this complex and contentious issue.

Thanks for visiting.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:13 AM, OpenID sonagi92 said...

Imperialism has been around a long time and produced ethnic mixtures everywhere. The Muslim empires account for their share of this in the places that they conquered.Indeed it was Mughal invaders who established a Muslim minority in the subcontinent more than two centuries before the British set up a government.

At 4:32 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sonagi, thanks. That's precisely the sort of Islamic imperialism that I was referring to.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:25 AM, OpenID sonagi92 said...

I wasn't telling you something you didn't already know but expressing agreement and clarifying history for our friend, Philip Phogg, who appears to know little of world history prior to British colonialism.

At 7:39 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Oh . . . I thought that you were responding to Anonymous. As for Phogg, I took his question to be rhetorical.

Anyway, I knew that you were expressing agreement with me, but you also gave a concrete example that I should have given, and I appreciate that.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:31 AM, Blogger Won Joon Choe said...

Typical Kaplan stuff.

Some of his earlier works were illuminating and useful in counterpoising post-Cold War Wilsonian hallucinations, but I fear now he's becoming rather trite with his geopolitics-obssession.

Okay, since today seems like my rant online day, so let me introduce a pet peeve of mine:

Why do these IR theory types insist on (mis-) appropriating political philosophers they've likely never read and certainly never understood? I know to attach present-day policy positions to the great old worthies make you sound literate and with the general public, but the advantage gained by that false glow of public approbation must pale besides looking like hubristic moron to those who know.

Hobbes, the monster of Malmsbury, is emphatically not a "realist" in any conceivable sense; in fact, he's the opposite and indeed the inaugurator of the tradition of the utopian tradition culminating in Kant and the dream of perpetual peace. For Christ's sake, we are talking about a dreamer who envisages "immortal peace" among mankind (only if we institute his system, of course). Kaplan, et al., ought to read Pangle & Ahrensdorf's Justice Among Nations at least, if he cannot be bothered to study Hobbes' vast corpus.

Really, the only policy wonk who is allowed to quote people like Hobbes, Hegel, and Plato are people like Fukuyama--who has seriously engaged the great works of Western political philosophy.

At 7:33 AM, Blogger Won Joon Choe said...


That grammatical mess is one of the reasons why I ought to never start a Blog.

At 7:53 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Won Joon Choe, I wouldn't have thought to draw a line from Hobbes to Kant. Is Kant reacting against Hobbes's state of nature?

One positive contribution of Kaplan to me, personally, was to remind me of the importance of geography and to give me a few leads on some important figures.

But you and Joshua at Registan seem to be well informed on these things, so I'll read Kaplan with more scepticism in the future. He was wrong about Iraq, after all . . . though he at least admits it.

By the way, there's not such a grammatical mess in that comment, so relax.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:37 AM, Blogger Won Joon Choe said...

Mr. Hodges,

I will send you a chapter on Hobbes from my book manuscript re: Hobbes' "anti-realism" when it is ready.

But to be succinct: Yes, Hobbes does begin from the state of nature, which is a state of anarchy or self-help. But the hinge of his political philosophy is that men, being plastic, can be molded to become peace-loving by exorcising thymos (desire for glory, a Platonic concept that Prof. Fukuyama rejuvenated recently) and invigorating his more mundane, material urges, esp. his desire for self-preservation. That is the liberal or pacifist project of Hobbes.

In contrast, contemporary realist theory of Morgenthau, Waltz, et al. do not envisage a condition where man can be dramatically re-molded to become peaceful. Anarchy and inter-state strife is permanent or eternal. This is as far as you can get from Hobbes' project to reorient human behavior.

And on the same token, none of the major political philosophers--whether Thucydides, Xenophon, or even Machiavelli--are realists in the contemporary IR sense. They all see men as relatively plastic. In particular, they all allow that non-corporeal factors, such as morality and the desire for glory, animate men and states as much as cold calculation of power.

In fact, even the more intelligent realists no longer buy mechanistic contemporary realism wholesale. Kissinger, for instance, has repeatedly said that he over-estimated American exceptionalism--the American public's aversion to pure machtpolitiks and its genuine, if often misguided idealism--when he attempted to apply European statecraft from the days of Metternich and Castlereaugh on the American scene.

At 6:16 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Interesting remarks. I look forward to reading that chapter when it is ready. I presume that this is a dissertation.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

this artical based on realist an fack precption.

At 3:42 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous wrote:

"this artical based on realist an fack precption."

I take it that you mean:

"This article is based on realistic and factual perceptions."

Do you mean Kaplan's article?

Jeffery Hodges

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